If we’re going to discuss craft, then we need to honestly look in the tool box. What do you see? Words, yes. But what do you notice about those words?
Well, if you’re a language teacher like I am, you’ll notice their colors: green verbs; pink, blue and purple nouns, articles and adjectives, yellow prepositions, et al. But if you’re being drilled by a language teacher, the colors may escape you entirely, stripping the words down to their lexical category. A.k.a. parts of speech. Every language has them. And what makes each language unique is not only the vocabulary, but how they structure a sentence.
If you’ve seen the movie Wind Talkers, for example, you might be interested to know that the reason why the Native American language code was too complex to break is because that particular language doesn’t use sentences the way we understand sentences. They don’t even have standalone words as we know words to be. They have only affixes that they string together into one long and longer word to express what they need to say. And they’re not the only language that structure things differently. In some Asian languages, the verb is always last in the sentence. In Romance languages (French, Spanish, etc.), nouns generally precede adjectives. Tough stuff. (Though potentially useful for creating voice.)
English comes with a set of rules too that writers are supposed to be masters of. Supposed to be being the operative phrase. Your book idea is fabulous, ground-breaking even. And your turn of phrase? Totally entrancing. But what if grammar and spelling elude you? Take heart and teach a lesson.
Wait, what? Teach what I don’t know?
You heard me right. One of the more salient points of my undergrad teacher preparation was this, “Teaching is the highest form of learning.” But how? Well, when you need to explain something to someone else, you figure it out. So if commas are your nemesis (as they are mine), grab a usage explanation and some sample sentences. Tackle them like you have to teach someone else what you’ve learned (and like their livelihood depends on you not only explaining right, but drilling it indelibly into their memories). Create mnemonics, songs, games, hand jives, color codes; research teacher lesson plans and activity pages; Google grammar practice websites… whatever it takes to teach your imaginary pupil (and, ahem, yourself) your grammar lesson so that they will never forget it.
Then practice. One of the biggest downfalls I see in Middle Schoolers grasping at grammar concepts is that they don’t put them into practice. For example, I know that when you’re writing, you’re just supposed to get your ideas out there and not worry about capitals and punctuation. But, umm, well I’ve also seen that create a very painstaking revision process. Especially if the writer doesn’t exactly know where to put them to begin with. And I’ve noticed with my own writing, that when I write a sentence and realize, “Hey, this is one of those comma ones that I always get wrong,” and then fix it on the spot, not only does it reduce copy edits later, but it also naturally improves my subconscious comma-usage.
Remember that old adage—practice makes perfect? Well it’s been revised in modern schools to, “Perfect practice makes perfect.” And there’s another adage to consider too—a stitch in time saves nine. Right, that’s the old way of saying—work smarter, not harder. You’re never too old to learn or relearn as the case may be. So pull out your word tool box and find your dullest point. Then sharpen up a lesson to share and write with your new grammar sensibilities firmly in place. You won’t regret it.